Disclaimer: Not mine
Author's Notes: The title comes from a Melissa Etheridge song of the same name.
Summary: The return to Earth after the first siege.
You know I've seen it before, that mist that covers your eyes
You've been looking for something that's not in your life
My intentions are true, won't you take me with you
And baby you can sleep while I drive
As the cab pulled away with a squeal of tires and a spray of water from the morning's rain storm only just missing Rodney – leaving him literally holding the bag – he refused to give in to the impulse of flipping the driver off. For one, he'd need a hand free to manage it with any style and meaning. (He also wasn't sure whether dropping the duffle might not break something; plus the whole dropping it into the water pooling on the ground would probably piss Sheppard off). Secondly, no doubt the bastard driver had a gun. This was rural America after all, and Rodney was well aware of the deadliness of surly cab drivers, not to mention the statistics of road rage instances. He'd already made the mistake of paying the driver too large a bribe to get him to agree to hand over Sheppard's pitiful luggage and take off, that he might as well as hung a sign around his neck saying rich Canadian, rob me.
Watching the beat up car disappear around the nearest corner, Rodney contemplated what to do next. Sheppard's duffle bag wasn't heavy, wasn't full, and while a part of him was tempted to discover what the major had bothered collecting for their first trip back to Earth after twelve long, desperate and frugal months, the part of him that already knew it wouldn't be anything a rational person would consider vital just didn't want the proof. For someone who's one personal item on the expedition's initial trip had been a copy of War and Peace in book form – in hardback book form – with a Johnny Cash poster folded up inside as a bookmark, Rodney couldn't imagine what Sheppard might have had waiting for him back in some SGC storage locker.
With a sigh, Rodney moved back to his rental and slung the duffle into the back seat. He then took a leaning position again the side of the car to wait however long for Sheppard to make his appearance. He knew crossing the street to join Sheppard would not be a good idea, even if doing so would have staved off any inevitable confrontation over what Sheppard would, no doubt, deem high-handedness on Rodney's part. Sheppard didn't argue in front of strangers, and never dressed someone down in front of witnesses.
Rodney was here to offer support. If that included letting Sheppard yell and be indignant for Rodney's presumption, well, that would serve the major in blowing off a little steam while still allowing him to accept what Rodney was offering. And, just maybe, Sheppard would instead be pleased that someone cared enough to come after him.
Rodney was still embarrassed that it had taken him so long in figuring out what Sheppard had been doing. His first thought when he'd hacked into the Mountain's computer system to find out that Sheppard was getting help from Landry's sergeant making travel plans and flights crisscrossing back and forth across the country, had been that Sheppard had gone to visit his girlfriends. But no matter how hot the major was, no one was going to wait not just the year the expedition had been gone, but those couple of years previous that Sheppard had been out country on deployment, not unless they had a ring on their finger.
If not girlfriends, though … It wasn't like Sheppard had any family, as evidenced by his refusal to send any last message when Rodney had performed his Hail Mary in making contact with the SGC. Nor was Sheppard was visiting famous landmarks or cultural centers in some resurrected places to see before I die, not in towns like Great Falls, Montana or Waynesville, Missouri. And not when the major wasn't spending more than a few hours on the ground before taking the air again, heading on to another handful of back-forty Hootervilles.
It wasn't until Rodney started over again, that he recalled a conversation between Sheppard and one of the sergeants evacced back to Earth for his injuries, overhearing that Colonel Sumner had once been married and had gotten divorced once he'd joined the SGC. Hearing that she'd relocated here to Shreveport, Lousisiana, coupled with Sheppard's first stop being Jacksonville, North Carolina, Rodney put it together.
During one of their off-world nights sitting around a campfire, Teyla and Ford had been talking about the similarities between their worlds over the many, many differences. Relating to the Athosian preference of staying together in family units, Ford had brought up how his own grandparents still lived in the town they'd been born in, a tiny place called Beulaville in North Carolina. That Beulaville had been less than fifty miles from Jacksonville, or more importantly, the Marine base Camp Lejeune. How even though no one from his family before had gone into military service, Ford had still seen becoming a Marine as a part of the family business.
From there as his own starting point, Rodney made the appropriate checks and cross-references, confirming that all the towns Sheppard had flown into had Air Force or Marine bases nearby. As well as then confirming that every person Sheppard had lost under his command had some form of family living near one of those bases.
Armed with the last address, Rodney had arranged his own Air Force flight from Peterson to Barksdale, and crossed his fingers that he'd make it to the right street in time. He'd cleared his plan with Elizabeth who, in turn he supposed, cleared it with Landry on Sheppard's behalf. Thanks to him, they now had ten days before they needed next to report back.
Ten days for Rodney to keep Sheppard from throwing himself on his own sword and screwing himself out of Atlantis.
That Landry and others wanted someone else returning to Atlantis as the Military Commander was inevitable. Major John Sheppard wasn't be anyone's idea of command material – except for the seventy or so men and women he'd managed to keep cohesive despite all the shit they'd encountered in Pegasus, and the eighty plus scientists and civilians the soldiers then managed to protect and keep alive. But Rodney hadn't needed to hear the rumors to know that the expedition's wishes had no merit as, apparently, neither did the bulk of accomplishments Sheppard had racked up over the last twelve months in Atlantis.
Rodney figured Landry and most of the rest of the SGC Brass hadn't bothered to read further than the first few lines of the first mission the military had undertaken after Atlantis had been awakened before making their decision. The one where Sheppard had been forced to kill Colonel Sumner to save him and, incidentally, save all of Earth from the life-stealing vampires called the Wraith.
Everett and Caldwell had been fucking proof of that.
Rodney had never thought he'd come to think the Go'ould would be a welcomed enemy, but aliens who lived to cosplay that they were ancient Earth gods were almost laughable when compared to sentient humanoid/insect hybrids who saw humans as food!
He'd never thought he'd be concerned about missing some military grunt either. Make that grunts, plural, because whether or not they'd be replacing Sheppard, Ford was definitely gone whether the SGC ended up classifying him as KIA, MIA or AWOL.
No doubt they'd blame Sheppard for Ford, too. Carson had already speculated before heading off to Scotland, that that was why Sheppard hadn't said much in his own defense during the few joint debriefings they'd shared. That Sheppard blamed himself for what had happened with Ford. And while Rodney could maybe understand and empathize a little (after all, there had also been Dumais, Abrams and Gall, not to mention Peter Grodin on his side), mostly the thought – the whole mess of who was going and who might be left behind – just pissed him off.
In his opinion, only the Wraith and Ancients (and maybe the stupid Genii) deserved the blame for the terror, death and destruction the expedition had experienced. What Sheppard may or may not have been culpable for – hell, what Kavanagh had definitely been culpable for – was little more than a tiny drop in a galaxy-size ocean of badness and betrayal that could only be laid at the Wraith and the Ancient's feet.
Fuck, but Rodney didn't have it in him to break in two new team members. Just as he would do everything he could to make sure he didn't have to put up with another hard-ass, Marine know-it-all, like Sumner and Everett.
That was all assuming, of course, that he – and Teyla – would be allowed to remain on a gateteam, something Rodney also doubted would happen if Sheppard lost his position.
Before he drowned in the misery of what Atlantis might be like without her (and Rodney's) favorite light switch, Rodney caught sight of a door opening, then of Sheppard. Sumner's former wife followed him through the door. She looked devastated but relieved, standing there with the major on her front porch, her hand still clutching the screen door. Rodney wondered whether the US military normally acknowledged exes and decided no, but wasn't sure if that was also the SGC's official policy. He suspected O'Neill might have done something in Sumner's case, but hoped it meant something more coming from the man who'd been the last to see Sumner, even if he couldn't tell her anything more than O'Neill would have.
And maybe it did; he watched the former Mrs. Sumner rise up to give Sheppard a quick kiss on the cheek. Or maybe she realized she wasn't the only one who looked wrecked.
Of course, it was easier to think it simply a response to someone who could charm the last ration of coffee that might exist in the entire Pegasus Galaxy before the chronically sleep-deprived scientist (who totally deserved it more and was expected to keep everything from catastrophic failure with little more than bear skins and stone knives) could scam it first. After the likes of Keras, Chaya and all those other susceptible aliens, not to mention various expedition members who had also succumb, Rodney had decided it was the hair and had even laid out the appropriate Venn diagram – coded.
Even now, Sheppard's hair was surprising to see on someone who wasn't artfully gracing the fashion magazine pages or a runway, not to mention on someone the major's age. It was doubly surprising to see it on a military man. And sinfully hot topping off the United States Air Force dress uniform Sheppard now wore.
The hair, the walk, the way Sheppard leaned and slouched, all called attention to the fact that his clothes always appeared at least a half a size too big even before they'd had to deal with strict food rationing, especially when the lean was framed by the doorframe to Rodney's private lab. Or when the slouch was performed across the back of one of those stupid left behind chairs that for anyone else demanded (and forced) rigid and exacting posture or else dispensed spasm-inducing back and neck trauma.
Sheppard had the spine and hair of an alley cat which, no doubt, was the reason Rodney had become besotted – transference. He was simply missing his own cat, Feynman.
Damn. Feynman! Before heading back to Atlantis, he'd have to make sure he had time to rescue his cat, if only for a few hours, from his stupid former neighbor.
After he rescued Sheppard.
Months in the field had taught Rodney to recognize some of Sheppard's quirks and tells. He noted the instant that Sheppard realized the cab had abandoned him as he walked away from the former Mrs. Sumner, saw the brief moment of dismay and resignation telegraphed in Sheppard's shoulders before Sheppard then caught sight of Rodney further down the road, doing his own leaning against the side of the convertible. The subsequent anger passed just as brief through Sheppard's frame and expression before an all too frequently seen wry smile replaced it.
"Nashville or Memphis?" Rodney preempted any argument as Sheppard approached. The question had Sheppard pausing both physically and mentally, the subsequent confused expression on his face almost cute, had it not been underlain with sheer exhaustion and frustration that he was going to have to deal with Rodney when maybe he wasn't up to it.
Not that Rodney was going to make him trouble, other than refusing to let Sheppard drive for at least a day. By the timing of the flights, it was obvious that Sheppard had been simply been catching naps in between stops, though whether out of discomfort in having someone else fly or from some kind of fear that he'd take too long in meeting with the families – that maybe someone in the SGC would have tried to stop him – Rodney hadn't yet determined.
He suspected it was a mixture of both.
"You're done, right?" Rodney tried again as he unlocked the door and gestured Sheppard into the passenger seat. "Sumner's family was the last of your notifications?"
Sheppard nodded slowly, his expression darkening to a look Rodney had seen too often on Atlantis. In his own haunted mirror too.
"So, Nashville or Memphis," Rodney repeated to banish both their ghosts.
Instead of answering, Sheppard carefully unbutton and remove his jacket, then fold it and place it on the back seat next to his purloined duffle.
"I assume one of those cities holds the Mecca to Johnny Cash," Rodney continued as if Sheppard had asked. He headed around to his own seat; although Rodney had never doubted Sheppard knew when he was being manipulated, the major could normally be relied upon to follow Rodney's lead if he physically started some action.
"I could have looked it up, but I figured either city was on the way to Orlando, so …" Rodney shrugged and got in, then bit down on the smile that threatened when Sheppard opened his own door.
"It's actually in Hendersonville," Sheppard finally responded, sitting down heavily and leaning back in his seat after belting himself in. "Still in Tennessee," he provided. "But the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is in Nashville. As is Opryland." He leaned back and just turned his head Rodney's direction. "Orlando?"
Rodney could let his smile loose now. He kept facing the front of the car, though, as he started it up. "I've never been to Disneyworld and it's the place, as I understand it, where everyone goes after winning the big one."
His answer startled a laugh out of Sheppard. The laugh, in turn, let that tight coil in Rodney's stomach relax. He programmed Nashville into his GPS navigator and saw that they'd be going through Memphis too, that Memphis was near the half way point to Nashville from Shreveport. As good a place to stop for the night as any other.
"I figure we can find a Waffle House a couple hours up the road for dinner," he went on as he pulled away from the curb. "Then on through Little Rock to –"
"Sure, Rodney, whatever you want."
Rodney shot Sheppard a quick glance as he navigated through the traffic, but Sheppard wasn't mocking or even just humoring him. Still leaning back into the seat, Sheppard had his eyes closed, but was smiling. A small, genuine smile, one that Rodney could still recall the first and then the three subsequent times its version had been offered.
The smile that let Rodney hope that John just might be offering what Rodney so desperately wanted to have.
Sheppard was asleep before Rodney got them out of Shreveport and onto the county road that would take them up to the interstate. Flipping on the radio to the classical station he'd already found, Rodney kept the volume turned down low enough not to disturb his passenger. Scant miles later, though, he figured he could have turned on Metallica without awakening Sheppard, which was as disturbing for proving just how run ragged Sheppard had let himself become, as it was flattering for the trust his doing so had engendered.
Like figuring out what Sheppard had been doing first chance upon their return to Earth, it had taken Rodney much too long to figure out that gift of trust he'd been given when it had first happened. On missions, Sheppard had never gone so far as to deny Rodney his turn of watch duty as a full, contributing member of the team, yet his shift was always scheduled first, with even Teyla taking a later set of hours that meant broken sleep. Even during Ford's shifts, Rodney had caught Sheppard awakening at any noise or movement, had come to realize that Sheppard never allowed himself to relax enough to get much more than cat naps.
Figuring such a level of alertness was battlefield-honed, Rodney had dismissed it, since Sheppard always seemed rested enough to do his job during the day or throughout the night, and Sheppard hadn't ever pulled a gun or anything on Rodney when he was abruptly awakened. Sheppard always seemed to wake in an instant, fully alert and knowing exactly where he was while in the field which, frankly, was what Rodney had been looking for in the people protecting him. Then, on the rare occasion when he and Sheppard had the need to sleep near each other while also on Atlantis, Rodney had discovered that the major didn't sleep any deeper than he did in the field, leaving him to conclude that what he'd accepted as combat reflexes might be something more. Like a difficulty of trust.
The first time when Rodney had realized that Sheppard could sleep like a normal person, that he had come to trust Rodney over Ford, Teyla or anyone else, what had started as an inconvenient crush became something Rodney couldn't dismiss any longer, even if he also figured he could never act on it.
Other than being there once more, watching out for him while John slept.
Despite the heat, the humidity and something akin to claustrophobia that he had begun feeling in being back on Earth, here, driving up some country highway with only a handful of other cars nearby, Rodney wasn't sure he'd ever been more content in his life.
So, of course, the truck stalled out on the shoulder that he blew past wasn't simply a distressed or abandoned vehicle. Although there'd been no lights visible on top, the antenna were a dead give-away now that he looked closer through his rear-view mirror, as was the fact that the truck instantly pulled onto the road behind him. The flashing headlights were pretty much redundant, not to mention the red light now strobing from the truck's dashboard.
While his string of curses didn't awaken John, pulling to the side of the road did. "Speed trap," Rodney explained curtly, though waving John to remain where he was while Rodney pulled out the sheaf of papers Landry's sergeant had handed over. Inside was an international driver's license, his passport, green card and a card with proof of insurance. His DOD badge too, that gave him access to any US military base, but Rodney figured handing that over with the rest would make it seem like he was bragging.
"You'll probably need this, too," John said, handing over the rental car agreement Rodney had stuffed into the glove compartment.
Rodney accepted with a tight smile, just refraining from tapping the set of papers against the steering wheel while they waited.
While he hadn't been tapping the paperwork, he had started jiggling his knee; something Rodney only realized when John gave him a quick, friendly nudge of his hand against Rodney's hip.
"Hey, we're not in any hurry, right?" John asked. "And it's not like Landry is going to dismiss you from the mission just because you got a speeding ticket."
Rodney nodded, taking a deep breath and holding it for a ten count; the closest he'd come to learning anything about meditation and calming himself from Teyla. It didn't make him any calmer, but it did serve to stop him from blurting out the first words on his mind. A scathing commentary in this case, that Rodney figured wouldn't help his case with some backwoods Arkansas state trooper.
Finally the trooper slid himself out of his truck, ticket book in hand and a smug smile on his lips. Rodney took another deep breath. He didn't even try for a fake smile, since no one would be happy about being stopped, but he did try very hard to keep his sarcasm and anger from his tone when the trooper offered the clichéd:
"Do you know how fast you were driving, son?"
Biting his tongue, Rodney nodded. "It's a rental, just picked up today," he told him, handed over the relevant documents. "I –"
"You're Air Force?" the trooper interrupted, looking between John and the back seat. "You coming out of Barkatraz, Major?" Without giving John a chance to answer, the trooper puffed out his chest and continued, "I crewed a BUFF during Enduring Freedom with the 2BW."
The smile John gave the trooper in return was not one of Rodney's favorites, but familiar all the same: giving the natives what they want so Rodney doesn't end up with a spear in his chest. "CSAR with the 79 RQS," John offered. "During Enduring Freedom and Anaconda."
Rodney was surprised that John almost seemed embarrassed by his answer. While he didn't know all the acronyms or mission names, he'd hacked the major's service record back when Elizabeth and O'Neill were still arguing whether or not to include John on the mission, and had known that John had spent time in the Middle East before he'd ended up in Antarctica.
The trooper didn't seem bothered by John's reticence. "Never needed you guys, but I was always damn happy to know you were around. So you're home on leave?"
"After a long deploy," Rodney confirmed with a nod. He wasn't averse to playing off of some kind of military fraternity if it got him out of a ticket. "Me, too. I'm a civilian consultant." This time he did flash his DOD badge.
The trooper's eyes narrowed as he gave Rodney a long looking over. In the end, though, he nodded and closed his ticket book. Then handed Rodney back his papers and took a step back. "Do a little better in keeping it in the lane, and make sure you guys watch your speed, Major," he finally addressed John, instead of Rodney. "When you change counties, you might not find someone so friendly."
"We appreciate it, Officer Green," John spoke up again before Rodney could, leaning Rodney's direction to take the documents and stuff them away, not incidentally also clamping his other hand on Rodney's knee tight enough to leave a bruise in his likewise well used form of sign language telling Rodney to just shut up.
Rodney did as suggested, waiting until the trooper had backed away, then simply said, "Thanks."
John nodded. "You're welcome. Teyla would be proud of you."
Which was Sheppard speak for him being proud of Rodney too. Rodney started the car back up and took them back onto the road.
"I'm assuming Barkatraz is Barksdale, but what's a buff?" he finally asked before the car got too full of feelings neither of them were good at expressing.
"Big Ugly Fat Fucker. A B-52. And they really are, but they've got a weird majesty to them, too."
Rodney shot John a grin. "Like the puddlejumpers. Inspired by overwrought, high-tech door stoppers."
"I always thought they looked more like a lightsaber hilt. And, hey, don't diss my jumpers," John protested with as much animation as Rodney had seen from him since, frankly, before the Wraith had laid siege to Atlantis. "We both know just down damn versatile and durable they are."
Almost to Rodney's heart-stopping regret, though not to John's, Rodney knew, which was something he was still trying to wrap his head around. He was no longer convinced John had a suicide wish as he'd first thought upon meeting the major, but how anyone could have been so calm, so … content (so long Rodney) to ride one of those jumpers to his death –
"Just because you can't fly them in a straight line," John was still muttering, pulling Rodney from the dark places his thoughts still defaulted to, now nearly two weeks past the crisis.
"In fact, maybe I should do the driving, too."
"Maybe when you can keep your eyes open for more than a few minutes at a time,"
"I can stay awake, McKay."
Rodney took his hand from the wheel and used it to hold the one John had raised in vague protest. "I know. But you don't have to this time, Ma – John. I've got it covered."
– finis –